Riding the Doom Loop
I am currently re-reading ‘Thinking in Systems: A Primer’ by Donella Meadows, a book that had a big impact on me the first time I read it. This time around, it reminded me of the Doom Loop.
A Doom Loop, aside from being an exceptionally good name for your next band, is the label attached to a reinforcing feedback loop in a system. A loop in which the selected solutions simply worsen the underlying problem. A vicious cycle, in other words.
Back in 2013, I wrote about the HR Doom Loop after reading an article of that name by Robert Bolton of KPMG. Bolton wrote:
“Anyone familiar with the systems thinking archetypes (repeating patterns of behavior in teams, businesses, or society) should recognize the “Shifting the Burden” pattern evident within many HR teams. Quite simply, the problem and the trap in which HR finds itself is that the function believes that it lacks credibility and is unable to deliver value. In an effort to rectify this problem, the team pursues symptomatic fixes in the form of the latest generic best practice models (see “Shifting the Burden to HR Fads”).
The net result is a diversion of attention away from where the real value lies—in implementing solutions tailored to the unique circumstances and requirements of the given business. By relying on generic HR practices, the team actually diminishes its level of strategic involvement and influence, leading it to look for additional quick fixes.”
In case you need a visual, allow me:
Source: The Systems Thinker: Human Resources and the Doom Loop
I Heart the Doom Loop
I am really quite fond of the HR Doom Loop not only because it uses a systems concept as one explanation or our current predicament as a profession, but in doing so suggests a way of thinking which might help HR escape this vicious cycle.
Systems thinking is one way to understand our organizations more deeply, identify root cause problems, and avoid creating new, wholly unexpected issues as a result of an attempted solution.
It offers a more nuanced way of looking at the complexity we tend to ignore or over-simplify when we develop org-wide programs and policies, and recognizes the existence of conflicting purposes in the organization which can lead to unintended outcomes. From “Thinking in Systems: A Primer”:
“System purposes need not be human purposes and are not necessarily those intended by any single actor within the system. In fact, one of the most frustrating aspects of systems is that the purposes of subunits may add up to an overall behavior that no one wants.
[This is] why everyone or everything in a system can act dutifully and rationally, yet all these well-meaning actions too often add up to a perfectly terrible result.”
Basically, systems thinking helps us to try to understand things as they are, not how we think they should be. This can be a powerful foundation for an organization that seeks to understand and improve itself as a system, rather than operating at a more superficial level in which every unwelcome outcome is the result of a bad actor who should be blamed, and can be prevented in future with yet another policy.
Obviously, it’s no easy thing for HR to adopt this mindset. It’s particularly tough to do when the broader corporate climate is one that values and rewards activity and short-term metrics over pursuing a nuanced understanding of root cause problems or misaligned incentives. But as Bolton suggests, our current approach is unlikely to make HR a sustainable profession in its current form:
“Another 15 years of pursuing generic best practices in the vain hope that they will provide rewards won’t help anyone. The answer is deceptively simple: configure HR for unique value creation suited to the strategy, markets, customers, value chain, and sources of competitive advantage for your company…It certainly does not mean a rush to the latest fad or fashion around talent management, workforce analytics, competences, global careers, or any other of the things that currently capture headlines and conference airtime.”
So, how do we know if we’re on to something genuinely innovative and valuable or we’re just stuck in the doom cycle, seeking existential reassurance via the latest fad? Perhaps it’s less a quality of the trend itself, and more about our own motivation. I’m all for staying abreast of the latest thinking and practices in HR, but if we’re drawn to a solution before properly understanding the problem we’re seeking to solve, that’s likely a red flag.
On that cheery note, I’ll be presenting at the annual HRPA conference this week (Friday at 10 am), where I will try to avoid suggesting remote work is a panacea suitable for every organization, and will instead talk about its inherent trade-offs, how to decide whether it makes sense for your company, and if so how to approach mitigating the associated challenges at each stage of the employee relationship. Maybe I’ll see you there? If so, please make sure to introduce yourself.
Read This Week:
We Need to Talk About Servant Leadership – Johnathan Nightingale, The Co-Pour
This is some tough love, truth-telling shit, and you should read it and then send it to a bunch of people (you’ll know exactly who needs it), with a small note that says “I’m sorry, it’s because I care”.
“You are not an accumulator and exerciser of power, are you? You’re not a greed-driven Gordon Gekko. You’re not even a Martin Shkreli-flavoured petty tyrant. It’s so easy to tell which side you’re on here, because the other side is full of monsters.
Here’s the thing, though. Servants don’t fire the people they serve, and you do. Servants don’t set salaries for the people they serve, and you do. Servants don’t approve vacations, assign work, or shut down the toxic behaviours of the people they serve. Do you?
When that empathy mixes with your imposter syndrome, the discomfort is too much. You grab at anything that makes that authority seem smaller.”
Make Yourself Heard – Women at Work Podcast, Harvard Business Review
This is the first episode in a new limited podcast series from HBR, and it was a good one. My blo gpost this week was almost about the concept of the ‘pre-meeting’, given how interesting I find the conflicting responses it tends to provoke in others. For the record, I’m a pre-meeting proponent.
The brain science that could help explain sexual harassment – Mary Slaughter, Khalil Smith, and David Rock, Quartz at Work
While I don’t think it ‘explains sexual harassment’ (again, we need to consider systems, not just individuals), I do think that power is an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle on this issue. This article is a good overview of findings about how power influences our brains.
“Power is nonconscious, Smith and her colleagues have found; we can have power, and absorb its cognitive effects, without realizing that we’re doing so. Other researchers have found that powerful people consider others’ perspectives less, and that the experience of power increases optimism about risky decisions. It also gives people an “illusory” sense of control over what will happen, increases the anticipation of reward while reducing the perception of threat, and prompts people to perceive sexual interest that isn’t there, among other effects.”
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Really enjoyed your comments on the Doom Loop Jane. You might want to check out the standards set for internal or external consultants by the International Society for Performance Improvement – ISPI. (I’m pretty sure they have a chapter in Canada).
The ISPI is very focused on making sure that any intervention to improve performance is based on evidence, not current “best practice”. Here’s a link to the standards if you’re interested http://bit.ly/2DG2pbH
Thanks John, I will take a look!